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Rental Inspection Districts Chosen

Three sets of residences with rental units will make up the pilot program for new inspection program.

Tenant residents of three Herndon districts that will be subject to new health, safety and zoning inspections next month are greeting news of the program with cautious optimism.

The state-mandated rental inspection pilot program, unanimously approved by the Herndon Town Council at its June 26 public hearing, will take place at rental unit townhouses of Branch Drive, Park Avenue and Waterford Park.

Staff members of Herndon's Departments of Public Works and Community Development chose the districts based on their high density format, a "high level" of zoning complaints from neighbors and a general need for increased monitoring for proper maintenance due to age, according to John Orrison, building inspection official overseeing the program.

Scheduled to start within the next 30 days, the program will include one inspector making pre-scheduled visits to rental units in the three districts to determine if proper safety and zoning standards are met. The inspector will be looking for a range of interior safety and maintenance issues, such as the presence of working smoke detectors to broken windows, according to Orrison.

The program will apply to approximately 40 units, he added.

"We will notify the owners in these cases that there will be inspections and they will be able to set up a time for the inspections with us," Orrison said. "This is another tool for us to make sure that basically health and safety standards are met within these high-density units."

When zoning and safety issues are uncovered, landlords will be charged with amending those violations in a "reasonable" time or face fines from the town.

Similar programs are in place in the City of Fairfax and the Town of Leesburg.

THE PROGRAM is a good layer of added security for landlords who may be inattentive or unresponsive to tenant requests for maintenance help, said Hazem Soliman, a tenant resident of the Waterford Park Townhouses.

"It's keeping houses at the level that they should be at and some landlords, unfortunately, don't pay attention," Soliman said. "Anything that will improve that process, I am in support of."

Both renters and townhouse owners of Waterford Park have been enthusiastically supportive of the new program, according to Kelly Horne, president of the Waterford Park Homeowners Association for the last seven years. Horne spoke in favor of the program at the June 26 council hearing.

"I know of some rental properties that were here that the owners ... were not taking good care of their property," she said. "I believe you have a lot of older neighborhoods in Herndon and this is just one more tool to make sure that people are keeping up with this upkeep."

While the prospect of improving resident safety is a good feature of the program, four-year Waterford Park rental resident Jose Quinteros said that he hopes it does not begin to impede on resident privacy.

"You want to make sure that your house has everything that is needed to keep it safe," Quinteros said. "But if they start using this to poke around and take inventory of the things or the people in your house ... it could bother some people."

AS THE INSPECTIONS will be pre-scheduled and both landlords and tenants will have time to prepare for the inspections, residents should not feel as if the inspections will be any intrusion into their private lives, Orrison said.

"It's not like you're going to be stepping out of the shower and they're knocking on your door," said Herndon council member Charlie Waddell. Waddell, who is also a local homeowners association president, said that while he understands privacy concerns that renters should realize that the program is about health and safety.

While not used as a primary tool to look for units that may be excessively occupied, inspectors will inform the town's overcrowding inspections staff if there is reason to believe that the unit is home to too many people, Orrison said.

"You can probably say that it's another tool" to combat overcrowding, Orrison said. "But this is more to protect the welfare and safety of all of the residents in these units."

The town will be in contact with Fairfax County's Office of Consumer Affairs to make sure that tenants are protected from any possible unfair treatment due to the results of the inspections, he added.

INSPECTIONS WILL BE headed by a neighborhood inspector who is already employed by the town and funded with extra money budgeted to the buildings inspection program earlier this year that had not yet been used.

If a significant number of maintenance and safety issues are uncovered and citizen opinion of the program is positive, the program may be expanded to include more districts and a larger number of inspectors, according to Orrison.

"Basically we want it to go smoothly and allow the program to run its course," before deciding whether or not to expand the program, he said.

The inspection program should more be viewed as a protector of renters' rights to a properly-maintained home than a new way of prying into their personal lives, Orrison added.

"These people are renting a house and they have the responsibility to make sure that those people in that house are living in safe conditions," he said. "So basically we can be seen as a consumer advocate for our renters."